Five years ago, Tom Egan was the first (true) Irishman to fight in the UFC. His debut coincided with the UFC’s inaugural visit to Dublin, the capital city, at UFC 93. When Egan came out for his fight with Brit John Hathaway, he was given a hero's welcome from the partisan crowd. Until then, and even after, Irish MMA presented itself in the surrogate form of Marcus "The Irish Hand Grenade" Davis, an American.
And in a sense, the UFC’s return to Dublin this past Saturday at UFC Fight Night 46 had at least a little -- and possibly everything -- to do with Egan and the pop he got that night in January 2009.
The then 20-year old Egan didn’t beat Hathaway; in fact, he didn’t make it out of the first round, losing via TKO. But as an Irishman who’d made it to The Show, he became a pioneer of sorts for some important spectators in the crowd that night. People like Conor McGregor, who has cited Egan as being the kindling he needed to become a star in MMA.
What does it feel like to work as the scaffolding for not only McGregor but Neil Seery, Cathal Pendred and Patrick Holohan, all of whom fought and won on Saturday night? A little surreal, Egan says.
He appeared on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour and talked about his influence.
"I had no idea," he told Ariel Helwani. "I never thought I’d have that impact on guys like Conor. I mean, look at Conor, where he’s gone now. It’s amazing to see that. I heard an interview a couple of weeks ago [of him] saying that seeing me at UFC 93 reiterated his dreams, and all of a sudden this dream that he had wasn’t just a dream, it was something right there in front of him, something he could go and pursue. And I had no idea that that was going on inside his head."
Egan has known McGregor for a decade, having first met him in high school. On the show, Egan described how he and McGregor would spend gym class lifting weights and talking about martial arts.
But the MMA scene in Ireland was still far from popular, until 2009 when the UFC brought Dan Henderson and Rich Franklin over for UFC 93. Marcus Davis, the American stand-in for all things Irish, fought Chris Lytle. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua fought Mark Coleman in a drowsy slugfest. And then there was Egan, who brought the house down as the only Irish fighter.
McGregor, then only 21 years old, took it all in. When asked if it’s possible that without Tom Egan there’d be no Conor McGregor, Egan said he wouldn’t go that far.
"I wouldn’t want to say something like that -- Conor’s always been somebody who’s very driven and very confident," he said. "Even at a time when I was busy fighting and Conor wasn’t as busy, he was always motivating me. He was always giving me a confidence boost, and he was always telling me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, so I don’t know if that would necessarily be something I would say.
"I’m pretty sure Conor would have done whatever he was going to do in a very big way no matter what because he’s got such a big personality. Not a lot of people would be able to contain that big personality he has. But even if I could be mentioned in the same sentence, that Conor McGregor got the inspiration to do something like this to achieve what he achieved, I’m blessed to hear that. But I think Conor would have gone in a good direction no matter what."
Egan is still fighting and training under Peter Welch. He had four fights last year alone, and said he was attempting to put together a good run so that he might end up on Saturday’s Dublin card. It wasn’t to be. But he was in attendance at the O2 Arena, which will go down as one of the liveliest atmospheres in UFC history. And he said it felt good to know he played a role in helping build that momentum in Ireland.
"I couldn’t have been happier sitting there watching these guys perform," he said. "The energy was just incredible. The Irish fans once again showed they are pound-for-pound the best fan in the world, just getting behind every single Irish fighter. It was great to see [Northern Ireland’s] Norman Parke getting all the reception that he got too. It was just fantastic.
"It’s a blessing even to think that what happened five years ago in 1993 was something that was able to spark something in these guys that wanted them to go pursue ultimate what they ended up achieving on Saturday night. It was just incredible."